When she returned to the table, no one acknowledged her.
"So, Mitchell," Phyllida was asking, "what are your plans after graduation?"
"My father's been asking me the same question," Mitchell answered. "For some reason he thinks Religious Studies isn't a marketable degree."
Madeleine smiled for the first time all day. "See? Mitchell doesn't have a job lined up, either."
"Well, I sort of do," Mitchell said.
"You do not," Madeleine challenged him.
"I'm serious. I do." He explained that he and his roommate, Larry Pleshette, had come up with a plan to fight the recession. As liberal-arts degree holders matriculating into the job market at a time when unemployment was at 9.5 percent, they had decided, after much consideration, to leave the country and stay away as long as possible. At the end of the summer, after they'd saved up enough money, they were going to backpack through Europe. After they'd seen everything in Europe there was to see, they were going to fly to India and stay there as long as their money held out. The whole trip would take eight or nine months, maybe as long as a year.
"You're going to India?" Madeleine said. "That's not a job."
"We're going to be research assistants," Mitchell said. "For Prof. Hughes."
"Prof. Hughes in the theater department?"
"I saw a program about India recently," Phyllida said. "It was terribly depressing. The poverty!"
"That's a plus for me, Mrs. Hanna," Mitchell said. "I thrive in squalor."
Phyllida, who couldn't resist this sort of mischief, gave up her solemnity, rippling with amusement. "Then you're going to the right place!"
"Maybe I'll take a trip, too," Madeleine said in a threatening tone.
No one reacted. Instead Alton asked Mitchell, "What sort of immunizations do you need for India?"
"Cholera and typhus. Gamma globulin's optional."
Phyllida shook her head. "Your mother must be worried sick."
"When I was in the service," Alton said, "they shot us up with a million things. Didn't even tell us what the shots were for."
"I think I'll move to Paris," Madeleine said in a louder voice. "Instead of getting a job."
"Mitchell," Phyllida continued, "with your interest in religious studies, I'd think India would be a perfect fit. They've got everything. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Buddhists. It's like Baskin and Robbins! I've always been fascinated by religion. Unlike my doubting-Thomas husband."
Alton winked. "I doubt that doubting Thomas existed."
"Do you know Paul Moore, Bishop Moore, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine?" Phyllida said, keeping Mitchell's attention. "He's a great friend. You might find it interesting to meet him. We'd be happy to introduce you. When we're in the city, I always go to services at the cathedral. Have you ever been there? Oh. Well. How can I describe it? It's simply - well, simply divine!"
Phyllida held a hand to her throat with the pleasure of this bon mot, while Mitchell obligingly, even convincingly, laughed.
"Speaking of religious dignitaries," Alton cut in, "did I ever tell you about the time we met the Dalai Lama? It was at this fund-raiser at the Waldorf. We were in the receiving line. Must have been three hundred people at least. Anyway, when we finally got up to the Dalai Lama, I asked him, 'Are you any relation to Dolly Parton?'"
"I was mortified!" Phyllida cried. "Absolutely mortified."
"Daddy," Madeleine said, "you're going to be late."
"You should get going if you want to get a good spot."
Alton looked at his watch. "We've still got an hour."
"It gets really crowded," Madeleine emphasized. "You should go now."
Alton and Phyllida looked at Mitchell, as if they trusted him to advise them. Under the table, Madeleine kicked him, and he alertly responded, "It does get pretty crowded."
"Where's the best place to stand?" Alton asked, again addressing Mitchell.
Excerpted from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Eugenides. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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